Dr. Anne von Gottberg, Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit, National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
If you had looked at South Africa’s invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD) surveillance data before 2002, you would have never guessed that one day that data would land on the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Even I thought such a feat was impossible. Surveillance for IPD was passive and patchy – certainly not the kind of data you could use to examine trends or measure impact. In 2002, experts in pneumonia and respiratory disease suggested that we completely revamp the system: start measuring antimicrobial resistance and serotypes, obtain clinical data from cases to explore risk factors for resistance. Although this was long before the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) was introduced, we knew any investments we made in the surveillance system now would pay huge dividends later, and possibly allow us to measure the impact of PCV introduction.
An example of disease surveillance activities. Here, Noluthando Duma works in the lab. Photo: NICD.
Revamping a national surveillance system was not an easy task. Our institute managed the process – from employing surveillance staff throughout the country to collecting data – and we had many, many challenges. This project seemed so unusual, so impossible, that it was difficult to convince anyone to join us. We would interview surveillance officers at remote regional sites who wondered how they could report to a central office in Johannesburg, given that they had never even been there; they couldn’t imagine how such a big, unwieldy national program could ever work. We would answer their questions with what I hoped sounded like confidence, but the truth was that we were figuring out the answers as we went along.
Despite these human resource challenges, we charged ahead, but it was a slow-and-steady race. At our national surveillance officer and principle investigator meetings, we had to bring together key stakeholders to discuss the surveillance network. We had to get buy-in on the methods, the case definitions, the flow of data, and sharing of information, and then we had to hire staff to operationalize our ambitious plans. Many new hires had never been on an airplane before, and some had never seen the ocean – the surveillance network really made South Africa smaller, bringing people together in the “new South Africa” in ways that I could not have predicted. So we anxiously booked window seats, made time for quick excursions to the beach, and hoped for the best. And although we had our fair share of hiccups along the way, our small team continued to grow, the years passed, and we kept on finding ways to silence the naysayers!
Meanwhile, things did not stay still around us. The South African government suddenly found the political will to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and with a tremendous effort, the government and civil society rapidly improved care of HIV-infected pregnant women, HIV-infected children, and adults in general. With these sudden improvements in healthcare, IPD also changed, making it more difficult to attribute any declines to the vaccine, even with the new surveillance system. But through a series of discussions with local and international colleagues and friends, countless conference calls, and careful review of the data, it finally became possible to tell the story that was in the data, collected for so many years by our dedicated surveillance teams.
Colleague Kedibone Ndlangisa conducting lab work. Photo: NICD
Last week, as experts and decision makers gathered in Kenya to discuss the results of various PCV impact studies from across Africa – all showing significant reductions in pneumococcal disease after the introduction of the vaccine – I was reminded of how far we had come on our journey and the many lessons learned on our path.
By maintaining our slow-and-steady approach remembering to “ask a friend” when we were stumped, and above all continuing to plow on in the face of challenges, we were able to turn data that at first glance may have looked like a mess into a meaningful and robust assessment of the impact of the pneumococcal vaccine.